What is a Jewish and democratic state? Because Zionism has always been conjugated in the plural, the Israelis have never given a definitive answer to this question, preferring pragmatism and compromise. Consequently, there is no constitution, but for 75 years there has been a permanent dialogue on the contours of Israel.
This sense of compromise and the desire for a shared future seem to be fading in the current crisis, marked by unprecedented drama. For many Jews in the Diaspora, including myself, the first reaction was one of observation: not indifference but, as I said at the Crif dinner, that of an attentive observer, initially confident in Israel’s ability to quickly find its point of equilibrium while respecting both its Jewish and democratic values.
A few weeks later, it is clear that the division persists and that the question is no longer one of determining the technical details of this or that political proposal – it would not be my role to comment on – but becomes a fundamental debate concerning the very definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
How does the state that embodies Jewish national emancipation define its democracy and its place among the great liberal democracies of the world? What definition of Jews should serve as the basis for the Law of Return, which gives the right to immigrate to Israel? How is the Jewish character of the nation-state of the Jewish people defined? These questions are also those of the Diaspora, which must make its contribution to the debate.
Zionist dream was elaborated as a utopia then as a project
In the Diaspora, the Zionist dream was elaborated first as a utopia and then as a project. The Diaspora must avoid Israeli political life in the partisan sense of the term. Still, it carries some timeless messages for the Jewish people, which can shed light on the current crisis in Israel.
For several weeks, French Jewish voices have been delivering divergent analyses of the crisis in Israel. Crif’s responsibility is to promote an honest, constructive and peaceful debate within French Judaism.
For the Diaspora, being Jewish means knowing what we owe to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Jewish condition throughout history can only blossom serenely in democracies (Israel, the United States and Western Europe...), to which the immense majority of Jews gradually migrated in the 20th century. And the honor of Israel is to be one of the only states in the world to have directly constituted itself as a democracy.
DEMOCRACY, AS we know, is about elections but it is also about a free press, a lively network of associations and adequate checks and balances. Today, as in the past, its democratic vitality is Israel’s strength.
But like all democracies, it can fail. It weakens when the rule of law is overrun by a minority during the unacceptable violence in Huwara in revenge for the attack committed a few hours earlier. Whatever the grief and anger, these riots were an unbearable assault on democratic principles and Jewish values.
It is also weakened when populist, stigmatizing and hateful rhetoric appears in the Israeli public debate, even in the words of some ministers in office. They are not acceptable in any democracy. It is not a political judgment to say so. We hold a moral position in France, Israel and elsewhere.
But it is also my responsibility to remind everyone of the widespread condemnation of these riots, from the highest authorities of the state in Israel (prime minister, president of the state...) to the majority of citizens. No democracy in the world can know what it would do, faced as Israel is with permanent terrorism and the will of its enemies to destroy it. In this respect, Israel has become a laboratory for democracies.
Because hatred of Israel, which did not wait for the composition of this or that Israeli government, is antisemitic, I will strongly oppose all those who will use the current crisis to delegitimize Israel in the debate in France. This is also a question of principles on which there is no compromise.
But above all, Israel must rediscover the sense of dialogue and compromise that has always enabled it to overcome its divisions. Israel will not escape this rule of life. I wish President Isaac Herzog every success in bringing together the majority and the opposition to reach a consensus solution beyond political divisions.
As Israel is facing a new wave of terrorism and Iran is on the threshold of a nuclear weapon, the solidarity of French Jews with Israel must not weaken in these times of crisis: on the contrary, it is growing in the conviction that it is in their heritage, both Jewish and democratic, that the Israelis will find a modus vivendi.
The writer is president of Crif, the umbrella organization of French Jewry, a federation of 70 Jewish organizations. He is also vice president of the World Jewish Congress.